A senior European Commission official said the EU was “very determined” to maintain a united front with Moscow by securing unanimous support for a proposed Russian oil ban and winning Hungary’s backing.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič acknowledged in an interview that the proposed oil embargo is bringing the 27 EU member states into “increasingly difficult territory” given the negative economic impact of the measures.
But he added: “We are very determined to work with Hungary, and of course with the other EU member states, to achieve European unity. . . we absolutely prefer the 27 to move forward together.”
Diplomats also expressed optimism on Friday for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who will swing next week, as Budapest insists additional investment and time are needed to transition away from Russian crude.
An EU diplomat said anything other than the full suite of sanctions on Russian oil, banks and individuals proposed by the European Commission last week “will be seen as a failure”.
After hastily passed five sets of sweeping sanctions against Russia in less than two months, the EU has hit a snag in seeking measures from Hungary and other landlocked Eastern European countries to agree to phase out Russian oil.
EU sanctions require the unanimous support of all member states to become law, giving countries that hold on to wield enormous leverage in negotiations. Officials and diplomats have warned that if Hungary continues to refuse to agree, the fallback option remains unattractive.
For example, it is still theoretically possible that the 26 member states agree to impose bilateral sanctions on Russia under their national regimes, while Hungary goes its own way. But this would not only undermine the EU-level unity that has so far been shown, but would also be legally irritating and procedurally complicated.
It also risks distorting the single market, as Hungary is free to buy Russian crude at potentially favorable prices, while the rest of the EU has to source oil elsewhere.
Delaying oil measures in the sixth set of sanctions and moving forward with other measures targeting banks and individuals is also an unattractive option, diplomats said. The EU is eager to stand with its G7 partners, including the United States, which imposed oil sanctions in March.
“I think we’re going to be as united as possible, both in terms of member states and in terms of the integrity of this package,” an EU diplomat said. “We don’t want others to declare victory over the lack of EU unity. “
Budapest is seeking huge EU investment in its refineries and pipelines as a condition of participation, but other countries, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, are also seeking special terms.
“The Slovaks and the Czechs are hiding at least partially behind the Hungarians – the common issue is securing supplies,” a senior EU diplomat said, adding that they were seeking an extension of the transition period and more time to build infrastructure and make specific commitments.
Still, the diplomat said negotiators were “quite optimistic” that a sixth sanctions package would be agreed next week.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó will discuss the measures at a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday. But a lot depends on bilateral talks between committee chair Ursula von der Leyen’s team and Budapest.
Monday’s meeting between Von der Leyen and Orbán failed to reach a compromise, and Szijjártó on Wednesday demanded an oil embargo that excludes the transport of Russian oil by pipeline, making it limited to sea freight – something that does not work for the European Commission and other EU countries.
Budapest argues that a joint statement by EU leaders at an informal summit in Versailles in March left member states making their own choices about their “energy mix” as they move away from dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal. down the space. EU leaders will meet again at the end of May.
“These are aspects that need to be discussed again between the prime ministers,” Orban told public radio last week, stressing that Hungary is as influential on the issue as the great powers. “If we want to change the consensus established earlier, then we can do it consistently.”
EU officials insist Hungary will support the EU’s fiscal incentives if they are right. “Orban is very pragmatic – it’s all about business,” said one.